Follow The Leader
The Maple Leafs will go as far as captain Mats Sundin takes them
The Maple Leafs fan is a bit like Linus on Halloween. Each spring
the fan waits not for the Great Pumpkin but for the Stanley Cup
to come to Toronto. Like Linus's, his is an enduring hope--the
Leafs last won the Cup in 1967--and for the past several years it
has hinged upon the play of a 6'4", 220-pound center with a
jack-o'-lantern face. Mats Sundin's wide brow and jagged teeth
have lately been complemented by a pair of scabbed lips, which
were bloodied during the Maple Leafs' sweep of the favored
Senators in Round 1. "There are high expectations in Toronto, and
a lot of responsibility falls on me," says Sundin, 30, who was
the team's leading scorer in each of the last seven seasons and
its captain the past three. "I welcome that."
No one, aside from goalie Curtis Joseph, who had two shutouts
against Ottawa, was more responsible for Toronto's triumph.
Playing a robust game, Sundin tied for the Leafs' series lead
with four points and two goals, averaged more than 20 minutes of
ice time a game and squashed the Senators' top center, Alexei
Yashin, with a thundering check. Sundin's overtime goal won the
opener 1-0, set the tone for Toronto's play for the rest of the
series and led linemate Steve Thomas to say, "It's so good that
he got that goal. He's under so much pressure."
The pressure comes because Sundin is the Leafs' highest-paid
player ($7.5 million) and because Toronto tends to go as far as
Sundin takes it. Last year his seven points spurred the Leafs
past the Senators in the first round. When Toronto played the
Devils in the second round--as it will again this year--Sundin was
held to one assist, and the Leafs fell in six games. "We follow
him," says enforcer Tie Domi, "and we believe in him."
Having Domi's support is crucial in Toronto, where Sundin's image
suffers because he does not come from the blood-on-your-jersey
mold of the beloved Maple Leafs captains who preceded him, Doug
Gilmour and Wendel Clark. This season has been particularly
trying for Sundin, who was unsettled by rumors that he would be
traded for Flyers center Eric Lindros or Kings defenseman Rob
Blake. Sundin's stated mission--that he wanted to finish among the
NHL's top five scorers--went unfulfilled, and he wound up 38th in
the league, with 74 points. Toronto struggled too, and at
37-29-11-5 barely made the playoffs.
Sundin was among the most intense players at practice last
Saturday, and at one point he barked at a teammate who had made a
sloppy pass during a drill. "It's been a roller-coaster season
for me, and now is the time to make it better," Sundin said after
the workout. "It's O.K. that I have critics. They want us to win
the Cup, and they expect me to help deliver it. I expect that
Van Hellemond in Charge
Keeping the Officials in Line
A week into his first postseason as the league's supervisor of
officials, Andy Van Hellemond was surveying his charges'
regular-season grades. "Here's an A, an A, a C. Hmm, pretty
good," said Van Hellemond, comparing an official who was still
working during the playoffs with another who didn't make the cut.
"There's a C, A, C, E. Not as good." (Referees and linesmen were
graded during each exhibition and regular-season match by one of
the eight game supervisors, who awarded an A for an excellent
game, a C for an acceptable one and an E for one with numerous
errors; there are no B's and D's in the grading system. In all,
the officials received 934 A's, 1,431 C's and 229 E's.)
After a 25-year career as a top NHL referee, Van Hellemond now
makes the call as to who makes the calls. For the first round he
used 20 of the league's 32 full-time referees, and he'll reduce
the number to 14, then 10, then five in succeeding rounds. He's
following a similar process for the 35 linesmen.
This season Van Hellemond, 53, has given laptops to each
on-ice official, and every morning he e-mails refs and linesmen
10-second clips of missed offsides and overlooked slashes as well
as correctly called plays. Though Van Hellemond often pairs a
younger referee with a more experienced one, he assigned veterans
Terry Gregson and Dan Marouelli to Game 4 of the volatile
Oilers-Stars series, during which Edmonton center Doug Weight
received a merited game misconduct for hitting Richard Matvichuk
from behind. As usual, not all officials were saluted by teams.
During the Avalanche's sweep of the Canucks, Vancouver coach Marc
Crawford was fined $15,000 for his derogatory remarks about
referees Mark Faucette and Mick McGeough following Game 3.
Though Van Hellemond won't name names, he's privately
critical of some officials who don't do their homework before
games, especially reviewing recent hostilities between teams. "If
you prepare the hardest, you'll move forward," he says. "If you
don't, you can go home and golf." --Brian Cazeneuve
One-Goal Playoff Games
Why All the Nail-biters?
Never before had the NHL seen such playoff parity. Through
Sunday, 27 of 41 postseason games (66%) had been decided by one
goal, well ahead of the previous high of 52% last season. The
first five matches in the Oilers-Stars series were one-goal
victories, and four of them went to overtime.
Why were so many games so tight? The main reason was that scoring
was down (to 4.76 goals per game, compared with 5.02 last
postseason). Only twice this postseason had a team had six or
more goals. In 1985, the Wayne Gretzky-fortified Oilers averaged
7.3 goals during the conference finals against the Blackhawks.
"In the playoffs now, teams think defense first," says the
Penguins' Jaromir Jagr. "The philosophy is to protect a lead, not
build on it." --B.C.
For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis from
Michael Farber and Kostya Kennedy, go to cnnsi.com/hockey.
WHOM WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE FOR A SEVEN-GAME SERIES?
A shoo-in for league MVP this season, the 31-year-old continued
his dazzling play with a team-high seven points as Colorado swept
the Canucks in the first round.
Dallas's most dynamic player, the 30-year-old had a team-high
three goals and displayed a rugged style in the Stars' six-game
win over the Oilers in the first round.
The Verdict: "The Stars' defensive system is only possible
because they know Modano can create offense when they need it,"
says Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish. That's why Modano's our man.